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Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, a form of electronic cash. It is a decentralized digital currency without a central bank or single administrator that can be sent from user-to-user on the peer-to-peer bitcoin network without the need for intermediaries.
Transactions are verified by network nodes through cryptography and recorded in a public distributed ledger called a blockchain. Bitcoin was invented by an unknown person or group of people using the name Satoshi Nakamoto and released as open-source software in 2009. Bitcoins are created as a reward for a process known as mining. They can be exchanged for other currencies, products, and services. Research produced by the University of Cambridge estimates that in 2017, there were 2.9 to 5.8 million unique users using a cryptocurrency wallet, most of them using bitcoin.
You can buy Bitcoins directly from other people using online marketplaces, no different than any other product or service. Alternately, you can also use a digital currency exchange or broker such as Coinbase, Bitstamp, Kraken, and Gatehub. Coinbase is one of the biggest U.S. cryptocurrency exchanges. For a beginner, it’s best and easiest to use one of these exchanges.
You’ll also need a “wallet,” a place to store the digital currency. (You’ll need one of these no matter which exchange you might use.) The wallet stores your private key, a secret number—a 256-bit string—that gives you access to your Bitcoins. Your private key also allows you the freedom to move across marketplaces. Just because you purchased Bitcoin on a particular exchange doesn’t mean you have to stick with it; your private key ensures that you can always access your wallet, whichever marketplace you use.
The primary benefit of transacting in Bitcoin is the low cost, due to the lack of an intermediary charging transaction fees. An additional benefit is the anonymity, as it is not required to disclose personal identity information in a Bitcoin transaction. However, this anonymity has often ended up being drawback of Bitcoin as it has become popular on the black market, where criminal enterprises choose to transact in Bitcoin over the Internet because of its anonymity relative to traditional hard currency.
A Bitcoin wallet is a software program where Bitcoins are stored. To be technically accurate, Bitcoins are not stored anywhere; there is a private key (secret number) for every Bitcoin address that is saved in the Bitcoin wallet of the person who owns the balance. Bitcoin wallets facilitate sending and receiving Bitcoins and gives ownership of the Bitcoin balance to the user. The Bitcoin wallet comes in many forms; desktop, mobile, web and hardware are the four main types of wallets.
A Bitcoin address is a single-use token. Like e-mail addresses, you can send bitcoins to a person by sending bitcoins to one of their addresses. However, unlike e-mail addresses, people have many different Bitcoin addresses and a unique address should be used for each transaction.